Feminize Your Canon: Anna Kavan


Feminize Your Canon

Anna Kavan

Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.

The reputation of Anna Kavan, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s most haunting and original fiction, exists in a shadowy realm not unlike those inhabited by her alienated characters. Since her death fifty years ago, Kavan has built a cult following, with all that phrase implies. Her fans, who have included Anaïs Nin, Jean Rhys, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, Jonathan Lethem, and Patti Smith, are scarce yet passionate. “Few novelists,” declared Ballard, “match the intensity of her vision.”

Kavan’s stranger-than-fiction life, meanwhile, has become mythologized, murky, the truth overlaid by details from short stories and novels that were taken for straight autobiography. An enduring piece of Kavan apocrypha, for example, is that she intentionally shrouded herself in mystery. “What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be,” muses one of her fictional alter egos. Whether deliberately or otherwise, Kavan did little to assist future biographers. Elusive and capricious, with the restless, questing nature of the malcontent, she drifted from country to country and man to man, formed friendships and dropped them, concealed her real age, and destroyed diaries and letters. “She cast doubts, she lied, she fabricated, she spoke the truth, she was most honest,” wrote the drama critic Raymond Marriott, a friend and coexecutor of her estate. “But where did it begin and where did it end?”

Another key element of the Kavan myth, exaggerated by repetition, is the starkness of her self-reinvention. Once a wholesome young English housewife who wrote conventional women’s fiction, so the story goes, in her thirties she was confined to an insane asylum and emerged as a chic, emaciated bottle-blonde heroin addict, wielding a bleak and anarchic new literary voice. A novelist friend of Kavan’s, Rhys Davies, was the first to present this colorized version of events, but many others have given their embellished spin. Vivian Gornick wrote that on Kavan’s release from the asylum, she “gave up forever the disguise of the woman who had married, written Home Counties novels … and she became integrated into the relentless image-maker of the drug-taking, vividly depressed, fantastical nighttime.” In reality, the transformation was neither so dramatic nor so sudden. But it’s little wonder that such a seductive and cinematic image has passed into lore.

The basic facts of Kavan’s life, at least, are fairly well established. In 1901, she was born Helen Emily Woods in Cannes to a wealthy, dissolute English couple. Uninterested in parenting, they delegated their daughter’s care to nannies and then, from age six, to a series of boarding schools in the U.S. and Europe. When Kavan was eleven, and at school in England, her father committed suicide by jumping off the prow of a boat in Mexico; her mother would remarry twice. The childhood sense of loveless dispossession seemed to permanently warp Kavan’s psyche, as well it might. “Not one single person has even attempted to understand me, to see things from my point of view,” mourns the nameless narrator of “High in the Mountains,” one of several stories Kavan withheld from publication during her life, now published in the posthumous collection Julia and the Bazooka. “They’ve all been against me, ever since I was six years old. What kind of human beings are these, who can be inhuman to a child of six?” In early adulthood, Kavan discovered the palliative to inhumanity: drugs. She dabbled in amphetamines, cocaine, pot. But it was heroin that became her lifeline.

When Kavan was nineteen, she married Donald Ferguson. Ferguson, a hard-drinking railway engineer based in Burma, was more than ten years her senior and could not have held much romantic allure to a sensitive and highly intelligent teenage girl. Decades later, Kavan would mercilessly fictionalize Ferguson in her 1963 novel Who Are You? In this claustrophobic and riveting sketch of a violent marriage, set in a malarial outpost of the British Empire, he appears as the sadistic and self-obsessed Mr. Dog-Head. So named because of his “dog-like aspect” and copious red-brown body hair, the character is devoid of a single redeeming quality. He has, nonetheless, “a curious inborn conviction of his own superiority which is quite unshakeable.” His eighteen-year-old wife, known only as “the girl,” exists in a state of torporific disbelief at finding herself legally bound to a vicious stranger, and in so alien an environment. Her lassitude and sense of confinement are exacerbated by the relentless tropical heat, which renders her hardly able to eat or sleep. “Probably it’s because she can’t get used to the climate that she feels so strange all the time, and can’t get used to her life in this country either. Is it her life? It hardly seems so.”

In Kavan’s fiction, intemperate weather operates as a powerful harbinger of doom, and of the world’s harshness and indifference. The climactic vicissitudes—fog, ice, heat, storms—that assail Kavan’s rootless characters underscore the provisional nature of reality, exceeding the pathetic fallacy. In Eagles Nest (1957), a luckless paranoiac takes a train from a city in the “grip of an iron frost” to a place under a “blazing sun” where everything was “arid, inhuman, enormous and elemental, like a scene from some earlier stage of the planet’s long life.”

Kavan’s best known novel, Ice (1967), is the apotheosis of this mode. Its vertiginous, time-looping narrative depicts an itinerant man’s obsessive stalking of an evanescent young woman—a platinum blonde, rail-thin “glass girl”—across an apocalyptic, barely habitable landscape. Nebulous geopolitical calamities, including a possible nuclear detonation, are ushering in a new ice age. Yet the reader cannot distinguish between material reality and the hectic projection of the hero, who admits: “I had a curious feeling I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing.”

If Kavan’s natural worlds are often inhospitable, their visual evocations are always beautiful. In Ice, as people trying to flee the country gather at a harbor, the mist lifts to reveal a coastline:

with many inlets and jagged rocks, snow-covered mountains behind. There were many small islands, some of which had floated up and become clouds, while formations of cloud or mist descended and anchored themselves in the sea. The white snowy landscape below, and above the canopy of misty white light, the effect of an oriental painting, nothing solid about it.

In Who Are You? a description of how the looming monsoon makes it “almost too hot to live” practically brings sweat to the brow:

Each morning the sun leaps triumphantly, unchallenged, into an empty sky; but always, by midday, the clouds are back, pitch black and sulphur yellow, inexorably piling up overhead; while the red-hot earth seethes like an immense cauldron in the eerie thunderlight of an eclipse, electric tremors vibrating in the breathless air.

Kavan’s disastrous first marriage, which resulted in a son, Bryan, only lasted a few years. In the summer of 1925, while traveling in France, she took up with Stuart Edmonds, a British artist. In 1928, they married and settled down in the English countryside. When their baby daughter, Margaret, died they adopted a little girl, Susanna. It is assumed that Ferguson kept custody of Bryan, who probably went to boarding school. But he visited his mother during the holidays. Kavan and Edmonds both painted—she was also a talented artist and would produce canvases throughout her life—and she began to write prolifically. Between 1929 and 1937, Kavan published six novels about dysfunctional English family life, using her previous married name, Helen Ferguson, as a nom de plume. Critics found Helen Ferguson’s D.H. Lawrence–tinged voice intelligent but depressing, and she achieved only minor commercial success. The UK Observer suggested that the heroine of her 1929 debut, A Charmed Circle, “should have been drowned in infancy, or her parents should have been poisoned by that rather trying Welsh nurse, since parents are plainly one of Nature’s mistakes.” Kavan, who had a death wish and a tortured relationship with her mother, would likely have agreed.

In Kavan’s late thirties, as her relationship with Edmonds foundered, she had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself. She spent time in a Swiss psychiatric hospital, and soon after her release she made the decision—later so sensationalized—to begin publishing as Anna Kavan, the heroine of two of her previous novels: Let Me Alone (1930) and A Stranger Still (1935). In this new authorial persona, Kavan committed fully to the literary style only nascent in her previous work: hallucinatory, experimental, steeped in doom, and with a disorientating quality made all the more forceful by diamond-etched prose and supreme narrative control and concision.

Asylum Piece, her first book as Anna Kavan, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1940. In these brief, lucid, thematically linked stories of madness, Kavan’s nightmare logic reigns. Systems of administration, impersonal and opaque, withhold help from desperate supplicants. Invisible but all-powerful enemies plot inevitable retribution. Blame, humiliation, and punishment are dispensed for unknown charges. And justice is impossible:

to whom can one appeal when one does not even know where to find the judge? How can one ever hope to prove one’s innocence when there is no means of knowing of what one has been accused? No, there’s no justice for people like us in the world: all that we can do is suffer as bravely as possible and put our oppressors to shame.

Reactions to Asylum Piece were admiring, if rather startled. “Persons with strong nerves and no doubts of their own mental stability will find Miss Kavan’s extremely painful book absorbing,” advised the novelist L.P. Hartley. “Gleams of beauty and pathos filter through it.” It was poor timing: despite the positive critical reception, Kavan’s relaunch as an author was stymied by the war. Still, she decided to kill off Helen for good and legally change her name. “As Anna Kavan,” she wrote to her lover, the New Zealand playwright Ian Hamilton, “I want to get right away from Helen Edmonds and all her associations.”

Kavan had no wish to discard, however, Helen’s most beloved habit: heroin. Having occasionally abstained, from this point forward Kavan more or less accepted the drug as an integral part of her existence. The narrator of “High in the Mountains” argues that, unlike “disgusting habits” like smoking or drinking, what she does “never affects anyone else. I don’t behave in an embarrassing way. And a clean white powder is not repulsive; it looks pure, it glitters, the pure white crystals sparkle like snow.” During this era in the UK, obtaining pure heroin on the black market was relatively straightforward. And if you registered as an addict, as Kavan eventually did, it was legal for a doctor to prescribe maintenance doses. An outwardly normal life was thus sustained. Though one of Kavan’s friends remarked on seeing her lifting her skirt and injecting herself in the thigh, there was otherwise nothing junkie-like in her conduct. By all accounts, her appearance was immaculate. “She was an excellent hostess and a good cook,” remembered Peter Owen, the publisher of her later books. “It was some time before I realized that she was an incurable heroin addict.”

Heroin was not always an adequate anesthetic, and Kavan was still overcome with periodic suicidal impulses. She apparently made a serious attempt on her life after her close friend and heroin-prescriber, the German psychiatrist Dr. Karl Theodor Bluth, died in 1964. Kavan was not grateful to the friends who saved her: “I can’t say how profoundly I resent their interference.” Another low point was when Kavan’s son, Bryan, was killed in action as a paratrooper in 1944. He was just twenty-one. To make matters worse, Edmonds, citing his ex-wife’s mental instability, denied her access to their daughter, an estrangement that seemed to become permanent. Kavan’s own history of childhood separation from her parents, which caused her such anguish, had sadly repeated itself.

Kavan spent the war years ricocheting all over the place—Norway, New York, California, New Zealand, Indonesia, and finally London—and published two more books: Change the Name (1941) and I am Lazarus (1945). In 1945 her short story, “The Blackout,” appeared in the New Yorker. Alas, the initial acclaim and excitement sparked by Kavan’s literary second act proved temporary. The surrealistic Sleep Has His House (1949), written in what she called “nighttime language,” was deemed too radical an experiment, despite drawing some praise. “This is a strange, softly terrifying book,” said the U.S. Saturday Review. “It is difficult not to yield helplessly to its beauty.” Other reviewers were far less generous, and publishers were scared off. Kavan fell into obscurity. She lived quietly in West London and supported herself by renovating and selling houses and renting rooms to friends. Some people assumed she was dead.

In 1956, a bookshop owner introduced Kavan to Peter Owen, whose eponymous young press championed unpopular and so-called difficult writers. He took her on as an author, but her next few books made little impact. Then, at age sixty-six, Kavan published Ice. It was the biggest critical success of her career. The writer Brian Aldiss awarded it the 1967 Best Science Fiction Novel prize, calling Kavan “De Quincey’s heir and Kafka’s sister.” The recognition had come just in time. The following year, Kavan suffered a heart attack and died alone at home in Kensington. According to the police, there was “enough heroin to kill the whole street” in the house. Kavan, horrified by the government’s new policies of sending addicts to drying-out clinics and prescribing methadone, had been hoarding supplies. On the day of Kavan’s funeral, Owen learned that Doubleday, her American publisher from twenty years earlier, had acquired Ice.

The firm of Peter Owen continues to publish Kavan. In May 2019, they will release a limited edition anthology of her writing illustrated by her paintings. The editor, Victoria Walker, is the foremost Kavan scholar and chair of the Anna Kavan Society. Titled Machines in the Head, the book brings together journalism and stories selected from Kavan’s criminally neglected oeuvre. It is mainly Kavan’s “resistance to categorization,” Walker has proposed, that has kept her from wider acclaim. Her work spans multiple genres, an approach always less permissible in women writers, and is astonishingly avant-garde even to the contemporary reader. Kavan knew that what she called “my sort of experimental writing” had narrow appeal, but she wasn’t interested in conforming to popular taste. Despite criticism and rejection, she remained uncompromising in her creative vision.

Yet there are signs that Anna Kavan’s moment may be yet to come. Last year, to mark its fiftieth anniversary, Ice was reissued as a Peter Owen Cased Classic and a Penguin Modern Classic. The novel was hailed by the New Yorker as “a haunting story of sexual assault and climate catastrophe decades ahead of its time” and the UK Times as “superbly unsettling … perfect winter reading.” To those cultish fans who see Kavan’s marginality as central to her glamour, such mainstream acceptance may be unwelcome. But for this most imaginative and otherworldly of writers, whose plots seamlessly merge fantasy and reality, past and future, life and death, nothing could be more apt than a cross-century literary resurrection.

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly RoundtableLongreadsNewsweekThe Daily BeastSalonThe AwlWords Without Borders, and other publications. 

Read Garman’s previous Feminize Your Canon columns, about Violette LeducDorothy WestRosario CastellanosViolet TrefusisKamala Markandayaand Olivia Manning.